Western Europe's historic buildings and streetscapes can pose problems for travellers with disabilities or limited mobility due to steep hills, cobblestones, stairs and lack of lifts/elevators in many older buildings (it's worth asking if a freight elevator is available). Bathrooms in restaurants may not be accessible for wheelchairs; check when making reservations. New buildings are required to be accessible under EU law.
Older public transport systems, such as underground rail networks, can also be problematic but alternatives may include accessible buses or trams.
Audible pedestrian crossing signals are only available in a few places. Guide dogs are generally accepted everywhere.
The website Sage Travelling (www.sagetravelling.com) is an outstanding resource for European travel, with accessible travel agent links, planning guides, tips, hotel lists, guided tours and excursions, cruises and more.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
In general, bargaining is only acceptable at flea markets. In southern Europe (particularly Greece, southern Italy and Spain) gentle haggling may be accepted at some produce markets. In all other instances, you're expected to pay the stated price.
Dangers & Annoyances
On the whole, you should experience few problems travelling in Western Europe – even alone – as the region is well developed and relatively safe. But do exercise common sense.
- Work out how friends and relatives can contact you in case of an emergency and keep in touch.
- Scanning your passport, driving licence and credit and ATM cards and storing them securely online gives you access from anywhere. If things are stolen or lost, replacement is much easier when you have the vital details available.
- Train stations in many Western European cities can be sketchy late at night.
Be aware of shopkeepers in touristy places who may shortchange you. The same applies to taxi drivers.
Never buy tickets other than from official vendors – they may turn out to be counterfeit.
Watch out for theft in Western Europe, including theft by other travellers. The most important things to secure are your passport, documents (such as a driving licence), tickets and money, in that order.
- Protect yourself from 'snatch thieves' who go for cameras and shoulder bags. They sometimes operate from motorcycles or scooters and expertly slash the strap before you have a chance to react. A small day pack is better, but watch your rear.
- At cafes and bars; loop the strap of your bag around your leg while seated. A jacket or bag left on the back of a chair is an invitation for theft.
- Pickpockets come up with endlessly creative diversions to distract you: tying friendship bracelets on your wrist, peddling trinkets, pretending to 'find' a gold ring on the ground that they've conveniently placed there, posing as beggars or charity workers, or as tourists wanting you to take their photograph…ignore them.
- Beware of gangs of kids – whether dishevelled or well dressed – demanding attention, who may be trying to pickpocket you or overtly rob you.
- Pickpockets are most active in dense crowds, especially in busy train stations and on public transport during peak hours.
Always treat drugs with caution. There are a lot of drugs available in Western Europe, sometimes quite openly (particularly in the Netherlands), but that doesn't mean they're legal (or safe). Even a little hashish can cause a great deal of trouble in some places.
Camping Card International
Camping Card International (http://campingcardinternational.com) is a camping-ground ID can be used instead of a passport when checking into a camping ground and includes third-party insurance. Many camping grounds offer a small discount (usually 5% to 10%) if you sign in with one.
Museums and various other sights and attractions (including public swimming pools and spas), as well as transport companies, frequently offer discounts to retired people, old-age pensioners and/or those aged over 60. Make sure you bring proof of age.
Student & Youth Cards
The International Student Travel Confederation (ISTC; www.istc.org) issues three cards for students, teachers and under-30s, offering thousands of worldwide discounts on transport, museum entry, youth hostels and even some restaurants.
ISIC (International Student Identity Card)
ITIC (International Teacher Identity Card)
IYTC (International Youth Travel Card).
Issuing offices include STA Travel (www.statravel.com). Most places, however, will also accept regular student identity cards from your home country.
The European Youth Card (www.eyca.org) has scores of discounts for under-30s. You don't need to be an EU citizen.
Most of Europe runs on 220V/50Hz AC (as opposed to, say, North America, where the electricity is 120V/60Hz AC). Chargers for phones, iPods and laptops usually can handle any type of electricity. If in doubt, read the fine print.
Embassies & Consulates
As a tourist, it is crucial that you understand what your own embassy (the embassy of the country of which you are a citizen) can and cannot do. Generally speaking, embassies won't be much help in emergencies if the trouble you're in is even remotely your fault.
Remember that you are bound by the laws of the country that you are in. Your embassy will show little sympathy if you end up in jail after committing a crime locally, even if such actions are legal in your own country.
In genuine emergencies you might get some assistance, but only if other channels have been exhausted. For example, if you need to get home urgently, the embassy would expect you to have insurance. If you have all your money and documents stolen, the embassy might assist with getting a new passport, but a loan for onward travel is almost always out of the question.
Embassies and consulates are located in Western European capitals and major cities.
You can find locations online at the following websites:
New Zealand (www.mfat.govt.nz)
United Kingdom (www.gov.uk/fco)
United States (https://travel.state.gov)
Emergency & Important Numbers
|EU-wide general emergency||112|
|UK general emergency||999|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entry and exit formalities are straightforward provided your papers are in order.
- Duty-free goods are not sold to those travelling from one EU country to another.
- For goods purchased at airports or on ferries outside the EU, the usual allowances apply for tobacco (200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g of loose tobacco) – although some countries have reduced this to curb smoking – and alcohol (1L of spirits or 2L of liquor with less than 22% alcohol by volume; 4L of wine).
- The total value of other duty-free goods (perfume, electronic devices etc) cannot exceed €430 for air and sea travellers or €300 for other travellers.
Generally not required for stays of up to 90 days for citizens of most Western countries (Australia, USA etc).
The Schengen Agreement (no passport controls at borders between member countries) applies to most areas; the UK and Ireland are exceptions.
Citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the USA don't need visas for tourist visits to the UK, Ireland or any Schengen country. With a valid passport you should be able to visit Western European countries for up to 90 days in a six-month period, provided you have some sort of onward or return ticket and/or 'sufficient means of support' (ie money).
Nationals of other countries (eg China and India) will need a Schengen visa, which is good for a maximum stay of 90 days in a six-month period. For those who do require visas, it's important to remember that these will have a 'use-by' date, and you'll be refused entry after that period has elapsed. It may not be checked when entering these countries overland, but major problems can arise if it is requested during your stay or on departure and you can't produce it.
Schengen Visa Rules
As per the Schengen Agreement, there are no passport controls at borders between the following countries:
- Czech Republic
- The Netherlands
New EU members Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania are required to join the Schengen zone (expected by 2020).
Note that Ireland and the UK are outside the Schengen zone; they are part of the separate Common Travel Area border controls (along with the Bailiwick of Guernsey, Bailiwick of Jersey and Isle of Man).
Etiquette (such as greetings) varies according to the country you visit; if in doubt, ask locally for advice.
- Dress modestly to enter religious sites such as churches.
- Avoid visiting religious sites at key times (such as services) if you're sightseeing only.
- Always ask permission before taking photos of people or their property (such as merchandise in shops).
- Switch mobile phones to silent in restaurants and entertainment venues; take calls outside.
- 'Love locks' (padlocks attached by couples as a symbol of their union) are a blight on many public structures across Western Europe and cause structural damage – avoid adding to the problem.
- Learning at least a few words of the local language (hello, please, thank you, goodbye) is not only respectful but will make your visit infinitely more rewarding.
It's foolhardy to travel without insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems.
- Before you buy insurance, see what your existing insurance covers, be it medical, home owner's or renter's. You may find that some aspects of travel in Western Europe are covered.
- If you need to purchase coverage, there's a wide variety of policies, so check the small print.
- Strongly consider a policy that covers you for the worst possible scenario.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online any time – even if you're already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
The number of internet cafes is plummeting. You'll occasionally still find them in tourist areas and around big train stations. Libraries are another option. Tourist offices can provide advice. Hotels will usually print documents (such as boarding passes) for guests.
- Wi-fi (called WLAN in Germany) access is better the further north in Western Europe you go.
- Wi-fi is invariably free in hostels and hotels.
- Many cities and towns have free hotspots (sometimes time-limited); check with local tourist offices.
- An increasing number of airlines, trains, buses and taxis offer on-board wi-fi.
Most Western European police are friendly and helpful, especially if you have been a victim of a crime. You are required by law to prove your identity if asked by police, so always carry your passport, or an identity card if you're an EU citizen.
Narcotics are sometimes openly available in Europe, but that doesn't mean they're legal.
- The Netherlands is famed for its liberal attitudes, with 'coffeeshops' openly selling cannabis. However, it's a case of the police turning a blind eye. Possession of cannabis is decriminalised but not legalised (except for medicinal use). Don't take this relaxed attitude as an invitation to buy harder drugs; if you get caught, you'll be punished.
- Austria, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland have all decriminalised marijuana use; possession of small amounts will incur a fine but won't result in a criminal record.
- In Spain, cannabis has been decriminalised and is legal to use in private areas but not public spaces.
- In Portugal, the possession of all drugs has been decriminalised, however, selling is illegal.
In cosmopolitan centres in Western Europe you'll find very liberal attitudes toward homosexuality. Belgium, France, the Republic of Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK (except Northern Ireland) have legalised same-sex marriages. Many other countries allow civil partnerships that grant all or most of the rights of marriage.
London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Lisbon and Amsterdam have thriving gay communities and pride events. The Greek islands of Mykonos and Lesvos are popular gay beach destinations.
Damron (http://damron.com) The USA's leading gay publisher offers guides to world cities.
Spartacus International Gay Guide (www.spartacusworld.com) A male-only directory of gay entertainment venues and hotels in Europe and the rest of the world.
- Newspapers & Magazines Keeping up with English-language print media is obviously no problem in the UK or Ireland. In larger towns and cities in the rest of Western Europe, widely available English-language newspapers include the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Times. Also readily available are Time Magazine and the Economist.
- Radio & TV There are numerous English-language broadcasts, including BBC World Service and Voice of America (VOA) rebroadcasts on local AM and FM radio stations.
ATMs are widespread. Credit-card use varies by country; Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted. For security and flexibility, diversify your source of funds. Carry an ATM card, credit card and cash.
- Most countries in Western Europe have international ATMs allowing you to withdraw cash directly from your home account. This is the most common way European travellers access their money.
- Always have a back-up option, however, as some travellers have reported glitches with ATMs in various countries, even when their card worked elsewhere across Western Europe. In some remote villages, ATMs might be scarce too.
- When you withdraw money from an ATM the amounts are converted and dispensed in local currency but there will be fees. Ask your bank for details.
- Don't forget your normal security procedures: cover the keypad when entering your PIN and make sure there are no unusual devices (which might copy your card's information) attached to the machine.
- If your card disappears and the screen goes blank before you've even entered your PIN, don't enter it – especially if a 'helpful' bystander tells you to do so. If you can't retrieve your card, call your bank's emergency number as soon as possible.
Minimising ATM Charges
When you withdraw cash from an ATM overseas there are several ways you can get hit. Firstly, most banks add a hidden 2.75% loading to what's called the 'Visa/MasterCard wholesale' or 'interbank' exchange rate. In short, they're giving you a worse exchange rate than strictly necessary. Additionally, some banks charge their customers a cash withdrawal fee (usually 2% with a minimum €2 or more). If you're really unlucky, the bank at the foreign end might charge you as well. Triple whammy. If you use a credit card in ATMs you'll also pay interest – usually quite high – on the cash withdrawn.
If your bank levies fees, then making larger, less frequent withdrawals is better. It's also worth seeing if your bank has reciprocal agreements with banks where you are going that minimise ATM fees.
Nothing beats cash for convenience…or risk. If you lose it, it's gone forever and very few travel insurers will come to your rescue. Those that do will limit the amount to somewhere around €300 or £200.
If flying into Western Europe from elsewhere, you'll find ATMs and currency exchanges in the arrivals area of the airport. There is no reason to get local currency before arriving in Western Europe, especially as exchange rates in your home country are likely to be abysmal.
- Credit cards are often necessary for major purchases such as air or rail tickets, and offer a lifeline in certain emergencies.
- Visa and MasterCard are much more widely accepted in Europe than Amex and Diners Club.
- There are regional differences in the general acceptability of credit cards. In the UK, for example, you can usually flash your plastic in the most humble of budget restaurants; in Germany some restaurants don't take credit cards. Cards are not widely accepted off the beaten track.
- As with ATM cards, banks have loaded up credit cards with hidden charges for foreign purchases. Cash withdrawals on a credit card are almost always a much worse idea than using an ATM card due to the fees and high interest rates. Plus, purchases in different currencies are likely to draw various conversion surcharges that are simply there to add to the bank's profit. These can run up to 5% or more. Check before leaving home.
The euro is the official currency used in 19 of the 28 EU states: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. Denmark, the UK, Switzerland and Sweden have held out against adopting the euro for political reasons.
The euro is divided into 100 cents and has the same value in all EU member countries. There are seven euro notes (€5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500) and eight euro coins (€1 and €2, then €0.01, €0.02, €0.05, €0.10, €0.20 and €0.50). One side is standard for all euro coins and the other side bears a national emblem of participating countries. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, don't use €0.01 and €0.02 coins.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
In an emergency, it's quicker and easier to have money wired via Western Union (www.westernunion.com) or MoneyGram (www.moneygram.com) but it can be quite costly.
- In general, US dollars and UK pounds are the easiest currencies to exchange in Western Europe.
- Get rid of Scottish and Northern Ireland banknotes before leaving the UK; nobody outside it will touch them.
- Most airports, central train stations, big hotels and many border posts have banking facilities outside regular business hours, at times on a 24-hour basis.
- Post offices in Western Europe often perform banking tasks, tend to be open longer hours and outnumber banks in remote places.
- The best exchange rates are usually at banks. Bureaux de change usually – but not always – offer worse rates or charge higher commissions. Hotels are almost always the worst places to change money.
Adding another 5% to 10% to a bill at a restaurant or cafe for good service is common across Western Europe, although tipping is never expected.
Travellers cheques are rarely used.
Travel Money Cards
In recent years prepaid cards – also called travel money cards, prepaid currency cards or cash passport cards – have become a popular way of carrying money.
These enable you to load a card with as much foreign currency as you want to spend. You then use it to withdraw cash at ATMs – the money comes off the card and not out of your account – or to make direct purchases in the same way you would with a Visa or MasterCard. You can reload it via telephone or online.
One source of travel money cards is Travelex (www.travelex.com).
Advantages of a prepaid card:
- You avoid foreign-exchange fees as the money you put on the card is converted into foreign currency at the moment you load it.
- You can control your outlay by only loading as much as you want to spend.
- Security: if it's stolen your losses are limited to the balance on the card as it's not directly linked to your bank account.
- Lower ATM-withdrawal fees.
- Americans and others who carry credit cards without embedded chips (or whose chip-and-PIN cards don't work in Europe) can use these cards (which have chips and PINs) for the many European purchases that require such cards. Train ticket-vending machines in the Netherlands are an example.
Against these you'll need to weigh the costs:
- Fees are charged for buying the card and then every time you load it. ATM withdrawal fees also apply.
- You might also be charged a fee if you don't use the card for a certain period of time or to redeem any unused currency.
- If the card has an expiry date, you'll forfeit any money loaded on to the card after that date.
Standard business hours vary hugely in Western Europe; check individual destination coverage for more specific information.
- Banks 8.30am–1.30pm and 3.30pm–4.30pm Monday to Friday
- Restaurants noon–2.30pm and 7.30pm–midnight (from 5pm or 6pm in destinations such as Britain and Ireland; until 2am in Spain and Italy)
- Cafes 8am–5pm (until midnight or 2am in destinations where cafes double as bars)
- Bars & Clubs Bars from 5pm, clubs from 10pm; to 4am (until 2am in Britain and Ireland)
- Shops 9am–1pm and 4pm–8pm Monday to Saturday
Post is handled individually by each country.
- Austria Österreichische Post (www.post.at)
- Belgium bpost (www.post.be)
- France La Poste (www.laposte.fr)
- Germany Deutsche Post (www.deutschepost.de)
- Greece Hellenic Post (www.elta.gr)
- Ireland An Post (www.anpost.ie)
- Italy Poste Italiane (www.poste.it)
- Luxembourg Post Luxembourg (www.post.lu)
- The Netherlands Post NL (www.postnl.nl)
- Portugal Correios de Portugal (www.ctt.pt)
- Spain Correos (www.correos.es)
- Switzerland Swiss Post (www.post.ch)
- UK Royal Mail (www.royalmail.com)
Public holidays vary according to country (and region); check individual destination coverage. Check http://publicholidays.eu for an updated list by country.
Widely observed public holidays include the following:
- New Year's Day 1 January
- Easter Monday late March/early to mid-April
- Labour Day (May Day/International Workers' Day) 1 May (all countries except the Netherlands and UK)
- Christmas Day 25 December
- Smoking Cigarette-smoking bans have been progressively introduced across Europe. Although outdoor seating has long been a tradition at European cafes, it's gained new popularity given that most Western European countries have banned smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars. Almost all hotel rooms are now nonsmoking.
Taxes & Refunds
Sales tax applies to many goods and services in Western Europe (although the amount – 10% to 25% – is already built into the price of the item). When non-EU residents spend more than a certain amount (about €75) they can usually reclaim that tax when leaving the country.
Making a tax-back claim is straightforward:
- Make sure the shop offers duty-free sales (often a sign will be displayed reading 'Tax-Free Shopping').
- When making your purchase ask the shop attendant for a tax-refund voucher, filled in with the correct amount and the date.
- The voucher can be used to claim a refund directly at international airports (beware, however, of very long lines), or be stamped at ferry ports or border crossings and mailed back for a refund.
EU residents aren't eligible for this scheme. Even an American citizen living in London is not entitled to a rebate on items bought in Paris. Conversely, an EU-passport holder living in New York is.
Hotel phones notoriously have outrageous rates and hidden charges. Public phone booths have almost completely disappeared.
Travellers can easily purchase prepaid mobile phones (from £20/€30) or SIM cards (from £5/€10). GSM phones can be used throughout Western Europe. Mobile shops are everywhere.
You can bring your mobile phone from home and buy a local SIM card to enjoy cheap local calling rates if it is both unlocked and compatible with European GSM networks. Check first.
A great option is a Toggle (www.togglemobile.co.uk) multicountry SIM card. It allows you to have up to nine numbers in countries across much of Europe, allowing calls, text and data at local rates, plus you receive free incoming calls in some 20 countries. Purchase SIMs online or at certain phone shops; topping up online is easy.
If you plan to use your mobile phone from home:
- Check international roaming rates in advance; often they are very expensive.
- Check roaming fees for data/internet usage; smartphone users can get socked with huge fees. You may be able to buy a data package to limit your costs.
- Coin-operated self-cleaning toilets (often marked 'WC') are found on the streets of larger cities.
- Cafes and restaurants' facilities are reserved for paying customers. You may be able to ask permission; otherwise consider buying a coffee.
- Large department stores (which may require coins) and libraries can be good bets, as can large hotels with facilities in the lobby.
- Take advantage of restrooms at museums and attractions, which are generally well maintained.
- Petrol station restrooms and basic roadside toilet blocks are usually available on major routes but cleanliness can vary greatly.
Greenwich Mean Time/UTC Britain, Ireland, Portugal, Canary Islands (Spain)
Central European Time (GMT/UTC plus one hour) Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain (except Canary Islands), Switzerland
Eastern European Time (GMT/UTC plus two hours) Greece
Daylight Saving Time/Summer Time Last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October
Tourist offices in Western Europe are common and almost universally helpful. They can help find accommodation, issue maps, advise on sights, activities, nightlife and entertainment while you're visiting, and help with more obscure queries such as where to find laundry facilities.
Official tourism authority websites:
- Austria Austria.info (www.austria.info)
- Belgium Visit Belgium (www.visitbelgium.com)
- Britain Visit Britain (www.visitbritain.com)
- France France.fr (uk.france.fr)
- Germany Germany.travel (www.germany.travel)
- Greece Visit Greece (www.visitgreece.gr)
- Ireland Discover Ireland (www.discoverireland.ie)
- Italy Italia (http://www.italia.it)
- Luxembourg Visit Luxembourg (www.visitluxembourg.com)
- The Netherlands Holland.com (www.holland.com)
- Northern Ireland Discover Northern Ireland (www.discovernorthernireland.com)
- Portugal Visit Portugal (www.visitportugal.com)
- Spain Spain.info (www.spain.info)
- Switzerland MySwitzerland.com (www.myswitzerland.com)
Travel with Children
Europe is the home of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, King Arthur, Tintin et al, and is a great place to travel with kids. Successful travel with young children requires some careful planning and effort. Don't try to overdo things; even for adults, packing too much sightseeing into your schedule can be counterproductive.
- Most car-hire firms in Western Europe have children's safety seats for hire at a nominal cost, but it's essential that you book in advance.
- High chairs and cots (cribs) are available in many restaurants and hotels but numbers are often limited.
- Disposable nappies (diapers) are widely available.
- Babysitters are best sourced through your hotel.
- Attitudes to breastfeeding in public vary; ask locally for advice.
Weights & Measures
The metric system is used throughout Western Europe. In the UK, however, nonmetric equivalents are common (distances continue to be given in miles and beer is sold in pints, not litres).